Mountain lion hunt (copy)

LINCOLN — On the heels of Nebraska’s second mountain lion hunting season, state officials have started preparing for a third hunt next year.

The Game and Parks Commission announced proposed regulation changes for the 2020 season on Friday. A public hearing on the proposal is set for June 21 at a commission meeting in Alma, Nebraska.

Sam Wilson, the manager of the agency’s furbearer and carnivore program, said the changes largely involve housekeeping items, such as changing dates to match the 2020 calendar and clarifying the requirements for inspection of animals killed during the hunt.

The major pieces would remain the same. Hunting would be allowed only in the Pine Ridge area of northwest Nebraska, where the big cats are most prevalent. That area would be divided into units north and south of U.S. Highway 20.

No more than four animals — or two females — could be killed in each unit. The season in each unit would end early if the limit on total animals or females is reached. Otherwise, the main hunting season would last from Jan. 2 through the end of February.

An auxiliary season, from March 15 through March 31, would be added if the limit on the number of kills was not met during the main season. Hunters could use dogs to track and tree mountain lions during the auxiliary season but not the main season.

Wilson said the Pine Ridge mountain lion population can sustain another year of hunting. Biologists estimated the population in 2017 at 59 adult lions and kittens in the area. A new count, using genetic analysis of mountain lion scat, is underway but will take months to complete.

Wilson said hunters killed five lions — three males and two females — during this year’s hunting season. That includes four animals in the southern unit and one in the northern unit, which was shot during the auxiliary season there.

There were six other known mountain lion deaths in the Pine Ridge area during the past 12 months. What’s unknown is how many kittens were added to the population, how many animals migrated in and out of the area and how many other deaths occurred.

“It’s not a simple matter of addition and subtraction,” Wilson said.

The estimated Pine Ridge cougar population ranged from 22 to 33 when Nebraska held its first mountain lion hunting season in 2014. As with this year, three males and two females were killed in that season.

Mountain lion hunts have proceeded despite stiff opposition. The best-known opponent, State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, won passage of a bill banning mountain lion hunting in 2014. The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Dave Heineman. Chambers has reintroduced the legislation in the ensuing years, but it has not passed.

Besides the Pine Ridge area, Nebraska has breeding populations of mountain lions in the Wildcat Hills and in the Niobrara River Valley. But the big cats have been seen across the state, including in eastern Nebraska. Young males, particularly, are known to roam extensively in search of new territories.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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